Skip to main content

Section 32.1 Impressionism

Impressionism is associated with Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France, Ottorino Respighi in Italy, Charles Tomlinson Griffes in America, and Frederick Delius in England. We will focus on just three techniques found in the music of Debussy and Ravel: (1) the use of modes, (2) the use of upper extensions above the 7th in chord construction in tertian harmonies (9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, which we saw in the chapter on jazz), and (3) parallelism, also known as “planing.”
  1. Use of modes. Composers such as Debussy and Ravel sometimes wrote in the church modes (Phrygian, Lydian, etc.—see Scales) as an alternative to the heavily chromatic music of Richard Wagner (listen to the influential Prelude to Act I 1  of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde).
    1. The first movement of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, begins in Phrygian mode. Notice that the seventh chord that occurs on the \(\hat{5} \) scale degree is half-diminished in Phrygian. (The penultimate chord in this example is not in Phrygian mode.)
      Figure 32.1.1. Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, I.
    2. The second movement (“Danse profane”) of Debussy’s Danses begins in Lydian mode.
      Figure 32.1.2. Debussy, Danses, II. Danse profane
    3. The first movement of Ravel’s Piano Trio Ravel begins in the Dorian mode. Notice that the penultimate chord is outside of the mode.
      Figure 32.1.3. Ravel, Piano Trio, I.
    4. At the end of the first movement of Ravel’s Piano Trio, Ravel transforms the theme by placing it in the Lydian mode. In this example, the final two chords are outside of the Lydian mode.
      Figure 32.1.4. Ravel, Piano Trio, I.
  2. Use of upper extensions in chords. Debussy and Ravel used chords containing ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, sometimes with chromatic alterations to those upper extensions.
    1. In bar 15 of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” from his Suite bergamasque, Debussy uses an \(\left.\text{E}^♭{}\text{m}^{9}\right.\) chord with the 9th of the chord in the melody.
      Figure 32.1.5. Debussy, Suite bergamasque, III. Clair de lune
    2. Bar 8 of Debussy’s “La Puerta del Vino” from Book II of his Preludes, contains a \(\left.\text{D}^♭{}^{7}\right.\) in the left hand with the notes in the right hand alternating between the ♯9 and the ♭9.
      Figure 32.1.6. Debussy, Préludes, Book II, No. 3, La Puerto del Vino
    3. In bar 70 of the same piece, Debussy also includes the ♯11 in the right hand, in addition to the ♯9 and ♭9.
      Figure 32.1.7. Debussy, Préludes, Book II, No. 3, La Puerto del Vino
  3. Use of parallelism (also known as “planing”). In contrast to the prohibition against parallel fifths and octaves in traditional voice leading, both Debussy and Ravel would take a chord voicing and move all voices in parallel motion.
    1. In Pavane pour une infante défunte, Ravel writes dominant 9th chords in parallel motion in bar 27.
      Figure 32.1.8. Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte
    2. At 5 bars after rehearsal number 5 in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy writes chromatically ascending dominant seventh chords.
      Figure 32.1.9. Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
    3. At 4 bars after rehearsal number 2 in the same piece, Debussy moves seventh chords in parallel motion. Notice that the chords are not all of the same quality.
      Figure 32.1.10. Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun